[This interview was originally published during the 2011 Locarno Film Festival. Abel Ferrara's latest, "4:44 Last Day on Earth," comes out this Friday, via IFC Films]
Abel Ferrara was in typical form this weekend at the Locarno Film Festival. Those familiar with the director and his distinctive persona know what that means: Ferrara's appeal is defined by wisecracks, self-deprecation and an unmistakable blend of sleaziness and charm – just like his best movies. In town to accept the Swisscom honor from the festival, Ferrara took to the rainy stage of the Piazza Grande on Friday night with a guitar in hand for a wildly uneven trio of folk rock tunes that received an amusingly mixed reaction from the massive crowd (some of whom booed). He also shared a scene from his new feature, the not-quite-finished "4:44 Last Day on Earth," which premieres next month in Venice and stars Willem Dafoe as part of a couple dealing with the imminent demise of mankind.
The next day, the director was in an equally cynical mode for a public conversation at Locarno's Spazio Cinema. Afterwards, he met up with indieWIRE at a nearby café (while hordes of curious Swiss fans looked on). Ferrara discussed his current projects, returning to New York after a long stay overseas, and the best way to find his recent undistributed films on piracy sites.
That was quite a performance you put on at the Piazza last night. Maybe you should put out an album.
Who's going to care about that? Well, I was surprised by how many people were there in the rain. It wouldn't have been me. I wouldn't have been out there. But we should've selected a more exciting clip from the film. We're working on it in the editing room. There's one movie you sit and watch on your telephone and there's one movie you're going to play for 8,500 people in the middle night somewhere. There are a lot of different edits of the movie. It's like I've been saying, working on the internet…we used to make films where we knew what the audience was going to want. These films didn't come out of heaven. You dig what I'm saying? Like "Driller Killer" was made for a specific audience. Right now, it's a matter of whether the tail is wagging the dog or the dog is wagging the dog.
Your new movie, "4:44 Last Day on Earth" is about the end of the world, but it only has two main characters. Presumably this is not a CGI-driven story of the apocalypse.
Well, we might have a shot here and there, but the CGI in it has been misreported. It's a story about a relationship between an actor and an artist, set in New York.
It's good to have you back in New York.
I know, right? I did a few years in Italy. It was good, but you know, the economics of the fucking world…unfortunately, when it's, like, primetime Wall Street, then independent filmmakers have it really bad. These guys are ripping everybody off. But Italy was great. I kept thinking, "Why the fuck didn't I think to come here way before?" We played the Hollywood game and we never had the sense to come to Italy. When you're in New York, you can't really imagine yourself living anywhere else. There's something about that city that really puts a stranglehold on you. When you're raised in New York, there's an expression that if you're not in New York, you're camping out. There's no other city has that 24-hour life. Try to break that habit.
Last night you mentioned that one of the songs you sang was written in the Chelsea Hotel. What do you make of the recent news that the hotel has been closed to guests?
That hotel is going down the tubes. You know when you have a piece of property there in this day and age, it's not going to happen.
This would be a good time for you to release "Chelsea on the Rocks," your documentary about the hotel's history, which includes many famous residents.
Well, I don't think anybody cares now.
I found it was really entertaining.
The movie? Yeah. I mean, you can't miss with that subject matter. You know what I'm saying? We had 40 hours of footage. Every clip was good. I didn't know anything about that hotel, you know what I mean?
Would you want to help save it?
No, no, I'm trying to save my own career. I always think I had it bad, but all those stories about them putting up Milos Forman for two years…the landlords are running the city now. You can have a rent party 24/7.
You mentioned earlier that you've been developing a screenplay about Pier Paolo Pasolini.
We wrote it, and now my producer, who was supposed to be here, has had bypass surgery. This happened two days ago.
What interests you about Pasolini's films?
He's the man, you know? He really is. But again, this is a project that already has financing. Somebody is already going with it. Where do the ideas come from? Well, if you got money behind something, that's a good start. It's an economic deal, man. We're trying to make a living here. Willem Dafoe will play Pasolini. They won't do a film about Pasolini unless an American actor is in it.
So it's going to be in English?
That's a real point, right? OK, so that I've been fighting about since I got to Italy. Any Italian story needs Italian actors, right? And there are great Italian actors. But they don't want to use them. It's impossible. At this point, I'm throwing in the towel, because I'm tired of arguing. They can't show an Italian movie. A movie that's in Italian can't be financed if you're trying to recreate 1975.
It's interesting to hear you talk about financing problems outside of the U.S., since you've had a pretty rough time making movies in the U.S. Your last several features weren't even distributed in North America.
The only thing you need to see them is the internet. Go find the torrents. That's my big distributor. You got to leave it to that. They're all on there. I just don't want to find the one I'm working on. That's the only thing that scares me. But just go on the internet for the rest.
Locarno is screening four of your films: "Bad Lieutenant," "King of New York, "Mary" and "The Funeral." Do you feel that accurately represents what you do?
I wouldn't have selected those films, because those are films people have already seen. I would have selected "'R-Xmas," "Go Go Tales," "Chelsea on the Rocks, or "Napoli, Napoli, Napoli," the films we've just made.
"Go Go Tales" played in competition at Cannes. I remember you were very proud at the festival that you were able to make a set in Rome look like a Chelsea nightclub.
The thing about "Go Go Tales" is that I tried to make it for a long, long time. I couldn't believe we actually ended up making it. Now, I care if it comes out. Back then, I didn't. There were so many times we actually built the set and I watched the set being thrown out into the street. I saw the set we kept making for $5 million thrown out into the street because we couldn't make a payment for the rent.
Sounds like the plot of the movie.
Yeah, it was exactly like the movie. I said, "Damn, this film does not want to be made." And then we made it big-time, the way we really wanted to make it. Hey, that film's going to last forever, so I can't get that hung up on whether my films come out. Yeah, sure, it's a lot easier if they come out. But you can't not play the game and then bitch about it. It's like, go and get an agent and live in L.A. and kiss some ass. Then maybe your film will come out.
What do you make of the way you're treated as an auteur in Europe but a trashier filmmaker in the U.S.?
My kind of filmmakers don't really exist. There's, like, what? Scorsese's a big-time Hollywood filmmaker. So's Oliver Stone. So's Spike Lee. So are the Coen brothers. [David] Lynch doesn't even want to make films anymore. I've talked to him about it, OK? I can tell when he talks about it. I'm a lunatic, and he's pushing transcendental meditation. These guys can't put up with it. George Lucas – you watch "THX 1138" and anything else – they're not into it. America is about grinding out product. That's what makes America. That's the deal.
At one point, there was an independent film field from 1990 to 1994. You had one window and then those guys all sold out. I ain't blaming them, because we probably sold out with them, but it ain't what it was. What I like now is that no one's going to theaters, and these guys are all like, "What the fuck is going on?" So now what? OK, dude, just when you thought you had the whole fucking game figured out, now the game is gone. I ain't got the answer, they ain't got the answer.
Since you like the internet, why not ask your fans to fund your next project? Crowdsourcing is hot now.
I just want to raise money from people who have money. The last thing I want is some poor slob who has less money than me to give me money he ain't gonna get back. But I know what you're saying. Believe me: I will resort to that.